Why you should care
Because if we want to truly take on the Islamic State, we need to be thinking about much more than we have been.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
The author is the former deputy director of the CIA.
The Islamic State has been ballooning aggressively for well over a year now, and the question I posed three months ago is whether we are ready to face the truth about this next generation of terrorists? I raised this question because the threat posed by the IS exceeds in complexity anything we’ve dealt with since the Cold War.
If facing the truth means a strategy capable of eliminating this scourge, the answer has to be: We’re not there yet. What would it really take to get there? Here are the realities that any plan needs to take into account.
The beast continues to grow. Three months ago, reports from U.S. officials suggested IS was attracting 1,000 fighters a month. There is no sign that this has let up. A senior intelligence official this month said that there are now about 20,000 foreign fighters in the IS, from 90 countries. Contrast that with the U.S. estimate six months ago of about 14,000. Of course, our data are imprecise, but most estimates suggest we’re facing down more than 20,000 fighters.
The anti-IS coalition is not even close to matching this rate of growth. Certainly, the coalition will begin training local fighters next month, but that’s, comparatively, a drop in the bucket. Meanwhile, in the last three months, Islamic State wannabes of varying strength have popped up in Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, and Libya. The fact that they’re copycats doesn’t diminish their ability to wreak horror. The Libyan group has already proved brutal, murdering 21 Egyptian Christians. Perhaps even more significant are reports that the IS and Nigeria’s equally brutal Boko Haram have begun to communicate.
Terrorism in the IS age is becoming a dangerous “network of networks.” And those connections create a complex web of powerful capabilities for recruitment, training, and logistics.
We’re no closer to having a Syria strategy. No matter what success we have against the IS in Iraq, its drawing power will not be diminished so long as the region’s Sunnis continue to see their brethren — who make up more than 70 percent of Syria — abused by the Assad regime. These Sunni grievances form the underlying architecture of the IS. And they are fortified by the similarly alienated 25 percent of Iraq that is Sunni, a group that remains unconvinced Prime Minister al-Abadi’s Shia-led government is any more trustworthy than the preceding al-Maliki government.
As we watch Assad’s grip on power tighten, these complexities pull us in so many directions that we simply cannot settle on a policy. We want to get rid of Assad, but doing so would only strengthen the IS in Syria and alienate Assad’s ally, Iran; and, though we don’t like to admit it, Iran is essential to combating the IS successfully in Iraq. In fact, some accounts suggest that Iranian-influenced militias and commanders might be among the most effective combatants in taking down the IS.
In a narrow sense, this works to our advantage now, but any Syria policy that discards Iranian interests could create an anti-U.S. backlash among the militias they control in Iraq. If ever our diplomats faced “three-dimensional chess,” this is it.
Old tricks won’t work against this new dog. The IS represents a new kind of threat, whose components are more diverse and powerful than anything al-Qaida ever fielded. Though damaging, al-Qaida was ultimately tiny and poor; it never held much ground, hid out most of the time, and steered clear of conventional militaries. The IS, in contrast, confronts us with money, ground, a bold public face, and a blend of terrorist and conventional military tactics. As one scholar noted recently, it is actually “a pseudo-state led by a conventional army.”
Our old arsenal of tactics — taking out leaders, disrupting plots as we find them, and winning regional “hearts and minds” — are still important but no longer sufficient.
So we need to get the land back. These critical differences mean that few things are more important than taking back key ground that the IS occupies — for starters, Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which is home to 1.4 million people. We’ve laid the groundwork, cutting off supply routes from Syria, securing key points around the city, and training five Iraqi brigades. But our plans are long-term, set to start as early as the summer or as late as the end of the year. And this is not an enemy that hides or waits.
What’s really key? A problem this complex can paralyze governments and coalitions. But we need to unfreeze — and fast. When there are no perfect options, we have to set priorities, and there are two essentials that have to be at the top of the list.
First, the offensive to retake Mosul must take place — and it cannot fail. That is the only sure way to demonstrate that the IS is not the powerful “caliphate” its propagandists trumpet. Second, we have to alleviate the concerns of Syria’s large and abused Sunni population. This is essential to undercut the most important engine of IS recruitment. Which means finding a way around Iran’s inevitable opposition to a change of government in its most important regional ally — and it means bringing along Assad’s other key ally, Russia, at a time when the Ukraine crisis is still fiery.
These two things will require heroic statecraft. But the ultimate reality is that nothing else will work.